I’m sitting on the patio of a local brewery in always-sunny Santa Barbara, California, listening to the tone on the other end of the phone line, waiting for the chirp confirming Isaac Fitzgerald has jumped on the call from his post in wintry New York City. We’re making the cross country connection to chat about his and illustrator Wendy MacNaughton’s latest book, Knives & Ink–the chef-centric sequel to their collection, Pen & Ink.
The book is gorgeous–page after page of tattoo illustrations by MacNaughton, and words directly from the the tattoo owner’s mouths collected and annotated by Fitzgerald. There is a sense of love in this book, and it isn’t just about tattoo styles or the chef lifestyle. The book conveys a love for the people that surround us each day and the things that make them uniquely special. MacNaughton’s work is fascinating as an artist’s reflection of another artist’s work, adding her own idyllic fluidity to the sometimes harsh and striking emotions that tattoos can carry. And the selection of phrases that Fitzgerald has chosen to correspond with the art are equally intriguing. They are a glimpse into each chef and the particular prose selected to be represented in the book provide some introspection into Fitzgerald as well. Both he and MacNaughton are clearly fascinated by people.
I was unsurprised to discover Fitzgerald himself is covered in artwork. His love for the tattoo shines through in the book and in his personality. He pays his bills as an editor, but he is undoubtedly an artist with a passion to share.
Benjamin Weiss: What brought you to the point at which you decided to create this book with Wendy?
Isaac Fitzgerald: Long before working as the books editor for Buzzfeed, I wrote for this online culture magazine that we started in San Francisco called The Rumpus. This was years ago, probably early 2008. And working there, I was so excited to be able to work with people that I admired. We published personal essays and book reviews, and we were talking about literature and all of this wonderful stuff. And then we started a comics section.
The editor of our comics section brought on this woman named Wendy McNaughton. At the time, Wendy was working on this series called Meanwhile in San Francisco. What she would do is just go to one location in the city, and she would just draw. It wasn’t three-panel comics or anything like that, just images made for the Internet. You could just scroll and scroll and scroll. So she would draw these different images from the areas that she was in and she would also talk to people and she would only use their own quotes in the drawings. So she would use these images to almost paint portraits of different areas of San Francisco.
Before The Rumpus, I worked at this wonderful bar called Zeitgeist, and it was open from 9am until 2am each day, so not always so busy, and what we used to do to pass the time is, well, I like to tell it like we talked to each other about our tattoos, but really, I was in my very young 20s and I would annoy other people and ask them about their tattoos. So, Wendy and I began talking about doing a sort of Meanwhile concept, but just about tattoos. Rather than her drawing all of these different areas and people, she would just draw tattoos. And we started doing that. Just for fun!
BW: This book focuses only on tattoos on the bodies of chefs. In your research did you find a connection between a passion for cooking and a passion for tattoos? Does the kitchen inspire this look and style or do people who are already into tattoos gravitate towards the kitchen for one reason or another?
IF: I would argue three things. The first one is the obvious answer: everyone gets tattoos for all sorts of different reasons. Even myself, I have some incredibly serious ones that are in memoriam to lost friends and loved ones, and I have some really jokey ones. One of my favorite ones from our first book, Pen & Ink, is just this woman’s toes. She got a letter on each toe and it spells out “pizza party.” So I asked her to give me the story and she said, “I just really fucking love pizza.”
BW: The second one?
IF: I think when you dedicate yourself to an art craft, whether it’s drawing or writing or anything when you think, “This is it. This is what I want to do. This is what I want to be the best at,” it’s important to cut ties in a way. And I think you see this with musicians and with chefs. They get tattoos on their neck or on their hands and it’s a way for them to say, “I’m never going back to a corporate job. I’m never going to sit in an office again. That’s my job, and my tattoos are my way of dedicating myself to the chef’s world.”
BW: And the third?
IF: Working in a kitchen is fucking painful! You get burned. You get scars. You get cut. Chefs are not unfamiliar with pain. Getting a piece of art tattooed on their skin permanently is just a part of it.
BW: I was surprised to see not every tattoo in your book was a knife or a pig or a stalk of celery. Of course, there are plenty of kitchen-themed tattoos, but it’s quite an array. Did you find there to be a common theme of any sort?
IF: One of the things Wendy and I did was decide if this book was just going to be tattoos that are linked to the culinary world. And at the end of the day, we decided that really wasn’t fair. The fact of the matter is that some of us do have tattoos that link us to our profession, but there are so many different and beautiful and heartbreaking reasons to get tattoos.
For instance, Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese, who was one of the first chefs to sign onto the project–this guy is a rock star chef, and it is so cool to have him as a part of the book. His first tattoos were about his mother and the fact that she used to collect angel figurines. That kind of thing was so important to us, to show all these different angles and all that tattoos can be about.
BW: Did you have a favorite tattoo that you came across in researching the book?
IF: It’s so hard to have a favorite, but I feel like some of my favorites are the unexpected. Jim Berman, the former executive chef of Firestone restaurant in Wilmington, Delaware–he has this lightbulb tattoo and when you see it, you think, “Oh, well I’m in for this pleasant cheery feeling.” It’s almost like a cartoon. But it turns out to be one of the most heartfelt stories in the book, about losing a culinary student to depression and suicide. I really love the ones that almost juxtapose.
Sean Thomas out of Blue Plate in San Francisco has got these big, giant flowers and waves on both of his shoulders and down his arms, and when I sat down to talk to him I was really ready for something wild, given their magnitude. He simply told me, “They’re just pretty.” Some tattoos are small and pretty simple and some are lush and giant and beautiful. It’s the same with the story.
BW: Sounds like you have quite a few tattoos of your own; do you have one in particular that you think you’d choose to talk about in a future book?
IF: Yeah, I’ve got a bunch at this point, and I typically talk about some of the funnier ones or the ones that represent something that I love, but I think if I were going to be part of a project like this, I’d probably talk about one of the lost love ones. And it’s hard. Just talking to you right now I’m choking up a bit, and that’s why it’s definitely hard to get chefs to open up about this stuff sometimes.
BW: Do you have ideas for a next book?
IF: Currently, Wendy is illustrating this incredibly amazing cookbook called Salt Fat Acid Heat. It’s going to be a major achievement when it is released. What I’m really saying is we’re taking a break from the “& Ink” series, but I know whether it’s a book or a magazine article, veterans are really of interest, as are prisoners. I think there are a lot of stories to be told in both of those groups, and tattoos are a major aspect of their lifestyle. We worked a bit with both of those groups in our first book and I really think that we just skimmed the surface of what could make fascinating collections.
Knives & Ink is available anywhere books are sold. We also recommend checking out Wendy MacNaughton’s artwork on her website.
Illustrations courtesy of Wendy MacNaughton